Trump and Clinton responses to bombs offer voters a stark contrast on national security

Members of the Secret Service protecting Hillary Clinton arrive at Philadelphia's airport on Sept. 19.
(Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty Images)

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump responded Monday to the string of bombings in New York and New Jersey largely by sticking to their playbooks: Clinton underscoring her experience, Trump linking security fears to his signature issue of immigration.

“I am the only candidate in this race who has been part of the hard decision to take terrorists off the battlefield,” Clinton said at a news conference in front of her campaign plane, whose white-and-blue color scheme evokes the government jet she traveled in as secretary of State.

“Immigration security is national security,” Trump declared at a rally in Estero, Fla.


The comments, coming amid a tightening race, underscored the choice before voters fewer than 50 days before election day, with Trump’s blunt, get-tough talk matching up against Clinton’s multi-pronged strategy for battlefields both overseas and online.

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President Obama, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump all had something to say on the recent attacks on the East Coast.

Typically, unforeseen events are the nemesis of a presidential campaign, particularly as voting nears. Sen. John McCain of Arizona notably suggested a break in campaigning during the financial crisis in fall 2008, which was dismissed by rival Barack Obama as a political stunt.

But Clinton and Trump appeared to barely break stride Monday, altering their schedules only to add morning news appearances.

Trump, calling in to Fox News’ “Fox & Friends,” took a measure of credit for quickly identifying Saturday’s explosion in lower Manhattan as a bombing before authorities had linked it to any criminal intent.

“I should be a newscaster because I called it before the news,” he boasted.

Clinton referred multiple times to a recent discussion with national security officials who served in both Democratic and Republican administrations and now support her. She cited others’ testimony that Trump’s brash comments have been used by terrorist groups to recruit members.

“Let’s not get diverted and distracted by kind of campaign rhetoric we hear from the other side,” she said. “This is a serious challenge. We are well equipped to meet it. We can do so in keeping with smart law enforcement, good intelligence and in concert with our values.”

She also questioned again whether tech companies were doing all they can to find terrorists online and undermine their recruiting efforts.

“The recruitment and radicalization that goes on online has to be much more vigorously intercepted and prevented,” she said, renewing her calls for tech companies to step up. Those calls have been met with apprehension by firms struggling to balance privacy concerns with demands from law enforcement to enable more sophisticated and widespread surveillance.

Later, after a speech in Philadelphia targeting young voters, she met with foreign leaders in New York ahead of the United Nations General Assembly, a setting meant to highlight her fluency in foreign policy and familiarity with heads of state. Trump met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi on Monday night.

As Clinton portrayed steadiness and focus, Trump, whose campaign has been driven by anxiety over the economy and concerns about security, saw an opportunity to go on the offensive.

“We’re in medieval times,” he said, speaking in especially bleak terms during a rally in Estero, his first since the weekend bombings and a stabbing rampage at a Minnesota mall that wounded nine people. Islamic State claimed credit for that attack, in which the perpetrator was killed by an off-duty police officer. President Obama said no link has been found between the stabbings and the bombs in the Northeast.

Trump claimed that Islamic State would prefer that Clinton becomes president, even though the group has publicly called his presidency a priority.

“They want her so badly to be president you have no idea,” he said. “It will be a field day.”

Trump suggested that current policy coddles terrorism suspects. He said the suspect in the bombings, Ahmad Khan Rahami, would get care from leading doctors and a top lawyer and “probably even have room service.”

He accused Clinton and Obama of weakness and political correctness, asserting that Clinton talks tougher about Trump’s supporters than she does about Islamic terrorists.

“Weakness invites aggression,” he added. “We’re weak.”

Polls show concern about terrorism is on the rise, particularly among Republicans. A Pew survey taken in late August and early September showed that 40% of Americans believed that terrorists’ ability to launch a major attack was greater than it was before the Sept. 11 attacks, the highest percentage in the annual poll since then. Republicans, at nearly 60%, were almost twice as likely as Democrats to hold that view.

Still, the issue is not a slam-dunk for Trump despite the fact that Republicans generally hold an edge in the question of who is better to defend the country against terrorism. A December Pew poll showed 46% of Americans said Republicans were better at handling terrorism, compared with 34% who said Democrats.

But Trump has not gained in polls of the presidential race after recent domestic attacks. Clinton gained after the Orlando, Fla., nightclub massacre in June that killed 49 people and the July sniper attack in Dallas that left five police officers dead.

And Clinton polled slightly ahead of Trump (49% to 46%) in a Fox poll taken in late August that asked voters whom they trusted to do a better job on terrorism and national security.

“It’s a classic head versus heart difference,” said Michael Steel, a Republican strategist who worked for Jeb Bush’s campaign in the GOP primaries. “I think that Secretary Clinton is making more cogent, substantive points, but there’s a real emotional impact to the language that Donald Trump is using.”

Steel noted that Trump tended to gain support during the GOP primary race after the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino despite predictions from some that the events would benefit more conventional candidates. Now it’s a matter for the broader electorate.

Though he made no mention of the political debate, Obama counseled Americans not to give in to fear that terrorists deliberately seek to stoke.

As Trump again portrayed the administration as ineffectual in securing the country, Obama said that counter-terrorism and law enforcement officials at all levels — “the best of the best” — were working together to investigate the threat.

“By showing those who want to do us harm that they will never beat us, by showing the entire world that as Americans we do not and never will give into fear, that’s going to be the most important ingredient in us defeating those who would carry out terrorist acts against us,” he said.

Twitter: @noahbierman, @mikememoli


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6:25 p.m.: This story was updated with Trump’s meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi.

This story was originally published at 4:20 p.m.